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The Birth of Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down

from InsideHook

What Was It About Siskel and Ebert?

The podcast “Gene and Roger” delves into the sometimes-contentious relationship that catapulted two Chicago film critics to legendary status

BY MICHAEL STAHL

In the PG-rated 1993 film Cop and a Half, Burt Reynolds portrays a curmudgeonly police officer who’s seen it all … almost. Despite his protest, Reynolds’s no-nonsense detective is tasked with babysitting an eight-year-old boy while on the job. He has to show him the ropes so that the kid, who’d witnessed a mafia hit, will finger the offender. The boy’s biggest dream in life is to become a cop, and he seizes the opportunity when it presents itself by blackmailing the police force into a ride-along. Hijinks ensue, and the kid’s meddlesome ways torture Reynolds’s character. He wants to catch the bad guys; the boy just wants to have fun. 

It’s David vs. Goliath, directed by “The Fonz” himself: Henry Winkler. In spite of earning more than $26 million in profit for its producers and spawning a 2017 spinoff starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Cop and a Half  holds a pitiful score of 14 percent on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer

Critics hated it. With one shocking exception.

Roger Ebert, already a legendary film critic who’d won a Pulitzer Prize, said upon its release that Cop and a Half  was “amusing” and that it “moves.” He also praised the performances of Reynolds and Norman D. Golden II, as the titular “Half.” 

“Somewhat to my surprise, I liked it,” he said, concluding his onscreen TV review. 

Ebert then turned away from his lens and faced his broadcast partner, Gene Siskel, a highly respected film critic in his own right, to hear his remarks. 

“Wowee,” the fellow Midwesterner Siskel began, gobsmacked by Ebert’s upbeat take. Through syncopated crosstalk, Siskel panned the performances, insisting there was no chemistry between Reynolds and Golden II, who he said seemed to be “looking for his lines.” 

“Gee, I thought it was dumb,” Siskel added about the movie as a whole. “Not colorful whatsoever.”

Barbed disagreements like this one — though it was hardly contained to a single exchange — helped keep Siskel and Ebert on the air, together, for the better part of a quarter century. Beginning in 1975, Gene Siskel, a Chicago Tribune reviewer, teamed up with Roger Ebert, critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, for a series of television programs that pitted the local newspaper rivals against each other, thereby providing audiences with distinctive, nuanced but uniformly astute observations on feature films. It was Goliath vs. Goliath, and the legacy of these programs, as well as the personalities of the cohosts, is the subject of a compelling new audio documentary series, Gene and Roger

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Posted on August 22, 2021 by Editor

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